WASHINGTON — While the response to hurricane Katrina has uncovered failures of government at every level - federal, state, and local - it has also revealed again the amazing generosity and effectiveness of America's private charitable efforts.
America is the most generous nation on earth. And we are proving it. From Hollywood glitterati to school-children in rural Georgia; from wealthy executives to men and women on the assemblyline; in our churches, mosques, and synagogues; and in a thousand other ways, we are reaching deep in our pockets and giving.
Within two weeks of the disaster, Americans had already contributed more than $600 million to relief efforts. They've kicked in another $100 million of "in-kind" donations. Private schools are offering tuition-free education to the children of survivors. Countless Americans have volunteered time and effort. Others have opened their homes to the displaced, donated blood, and helped in other ways large and small.
American business is doing its part, too. Wal-Mart, so reviled by the American left, not only donated $20 million in cash, 1,500 truckloads of free merchandise, and food for 100,000 meals, it promised a job for every one of its displaced workers no matter where in the country they end up. At least 90 corporations have donated at least $1 million each, many far more than that. Many companies in Louisiana and Mississippi have promised to continue paying their workers, even if their stores or businesses were wiped out.
This is charity as it was meant to be, individuals helping one another through love of neighbor.
Voluntary sacrifice is what makes philanthropy a virtuous act.
In fact, in the Bible, the Greek word translated as charity is agapeo, which means love.
It is the antithesis of government programs that are based on coercion. Indeed, the whole idea of "government charity" is an oxymoron.
As we hear calls for a "compassionate" response to the victims of this tragedy, it is important to remember that you can't be compassionate with other people's money. This difference is as simple as the difference between my reaching into my pocket for money to help someone in need and my reaching into your pocket for the same purpose. The former is charity - the latter is not.
Moreover, private charity has long been recognized as more effective and efficient than government welfare programs. Local churches and community groups are the best positioned to understand the needs in their respective areas, and can direct money or services to where they are most useful.
Private charities are generally far more flexible than government agencies, which are frequently bogged down in red tape and regulations. Just ask yourself, who has done a better job at timely and effective response, FEMA or the American Red Cross?
This is not to say that government has no role in dealing with a disaster like Katrina.
From policing to search and rescue to infrastructure repair, the government has and will continue to be active. But there is a danger in turning to the government too quickly or too often.
If people come to believe that government will provide the funding, they may decide that there is less need for their own contributions. This will result in a loss not only of money, but of the human quality of charity.
As Robert Thompson of the University of Pennsylvania noted a century ago, using government money for charitable purposes is a "rough contrivance to lift from the social conscience a burden that should not be either lifted or lightened in any way."
The end result will be the growth of government and the decline of compassion-based voluntary giving.
As the politicians compete with each other to see who can throw more money at the problem, it is worth having a debate about what should be the role of government and what should be the responsibility of those incredibly generous American people.
• Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute and author of 'The Poverty of Welfare: Helping Others in Civil Society.'